Don’t Squash Disruptive Students
What does the ideal classroom look like? Perhaps we might imagine the ideal classroom as organized, with students always speaking in turn, the teacher in control of the environment, devoid of disruptions, and school work being done efficiently. It sounds nice, but I’m not so certain about that idyllic picture. If I were to see this classroom, I would have concerns. I’ll tell you why.
Some years ago a student (whose story I share with permission) walked into his beginning class much like every other student walks into their first beginning class, and then proceeded to act very much not like every other student in his or any other beginning class. He was loud. Very loud. I think outside observers would have been shocked at the amount of time that he spent yelling at me during class. I do not exaggerate. Actually yelling at me. Sometimes threatening me too. Don’t be alarmed, the threats were never serious and the yelling was never mean spirited. They were just the high spirited outbursts of a kid who needed to yell. But they were disruptive. Often he would start in on the yelling during in-class discussions. I would get him to a point where he didn’t have anything to say in response to my arguments and then he would just start yelling. Sometimes, however, he didn’t seem to need any particular reason to start yelling in class. He would just randomly respond to almost any prompt by standing up, pacing, and shouting whatever he had to say. I often found the circumstance amusing. Sometimes I did not. Sometimes it was taxing. To say that my student did not fit the mold of the average student would be a gross understatement.
The question, of course, was what to do about it? I’m certain that I didn't handle the situation perfectly, but I remember feeling strongly that I should not squash this student. I determined that, as much as I could, while still having a functional class, I would let him express himself and be himself. I thought that he had probably received a lot of frustration and criticism for his behavior in other settings. I imagined that he had possibly felt disliked by his teachers, leaders, or peers in other settings. I felt that if I would be patient with him, that it would ultimately work out well. So I let him yell in class more than I imagine students are allowed to yell in an average classroom. Perhaps I was too lenient. It’s hard for me to tell. I imagine that some people who observed the class thought I was too lenient.
However, years later, as I came to understand my student better, I was exceptionally grateful that I chose that general course of action. Over the years I came to see two things going on with my student. The first was that he was a naturally rambunctious boy. He just had a higher energy disposition than the average person by a pretty good distance. Some of it was immaturity, but it wasn’t all immaturity. Some if it was just who he was. The second issue was that he was dealing with a significant amount of inner turmoil, and, being naturally verbal and energetic, his disruptive behaviors were one of the ways that he dealt with some very difficult thoughts and emotions.
As the years progressed, he matured and found alternate ways to deal with his inner environment. His high energy nature turned from a largely disruptive force in the classroom to a largely beneficial force in the classroom. He became encouraging to his classmates, a dedicated student, a very capable speaker and debater, and someone who was a lot of fun to teach. As I’ve thought back on the circumstance, I think about how easy it would have been, in a moment of frustration, to say something that would deliver the message to him that I didn’t like who he was and that he had to change right at that moment. I’m grateful I didn’t because I did like who he was. I’m also grateful that I didn’t because the fact is that, some of the things that I would have asked him to change, he wouldn’t be able to change, some would have been a bad idea for him to change, and some of them he would not have been ready to change at that moment in time.
My experience with this, and with a number of other students, has taught me to err on the side of patience and gentle correction, allowing students to express their personalities, giving students space to work through the difficulties that they are experiencing, and overall not squashing disruptive students. Some thoughts to consider on the subject-
1. How Do We Treat Other Students?
I want you to imagine a pile of sand. Bunched up in the middle are the sort of behaviors you would expect from a student. The student raises his/her hand, speaks in turn, turns in most of their homework, etc. Lots of students have these behaviors. But spreading out in all directions are many different behaviors that are progressively outside the norm. Perhaps a student is very quiet, or likes to connect whatever is being discussed in class to facts about Soviet history (as one particularly fun student I teach enjoys doing), or is a perfectionist with regards to homework, or really really wants everyone else in class to listen quietly to the teacher. All of these behaviors would be outside the norm, but worth noting is that only some of them become disruptive to a classroom environment. So how do we end up treating students who are outside the norm, but aren’t disruptive to the classroom? Generally, we enjoy or celebrate their unique attributes. If those behaviors are not helpful to the student, then we patiently help students see that they need to grow out of those behaviors. It seems unlikely that a teacher would harshly criticize a student for not speaking up as much as they want in class. Perfectionism is definitely harmful to a student’s long term wellbeing, but teachers don’t snap at students for trying too hard on their homework. But what about the disruptive student? Are they really different from these other students, other than the fact that their differences end up interfering with classroom management? I think not. They need patience, for their unique attributes to be enjoyed or highlighted, and to be given time and space to mature just like any other student. This is not to say that teachers should give up on classroom management, but classroom management does not require a perfectly peaceful class, and it definitely doesn’t require teachers to shame students into compliance.
On the MetaX education research data set, there is literally only one studied teacher attribute that has an overall negative effect on student outcomes. This should not surprise us. People are made to learn, so almost anything a teacher does to help a student learn is likely to have some positive effect. That single negative effect is students feeling disliked by a teacher. Conversely, teachers refusing to label students, even in their own mind, with labels like “naughty” or “difficult” has one of the largest positive effects on student performance among studied teacher attributes. The way that we think about students changes the ways that we interact with them. So thinking about disruptive students in neutral or positive terms can help them make the growth that they need to experience in order to better integrate into a classroom. If a student frequently speaks out of turn, and the teacher thinks (as in really thinks) of the student as a fun personality with lots to say who also has some maturing to do, then the web of student teacher interactions changes significantly versus thinking of the student as a nuisance. If a student spends class time making jokes instead of staying on task, a teacher who patiently wonders why the student feels the need to turn everything into a joke is much more likely to help that student correct the behavior than the teacher who thinks of the student as a distraction. The words we use to describe students, even to ourselves, have a large impact on our ability to teach them. Can we, then, think of students who are disruptive in the same way we think of non-disruptive students. Of the very quiet student, we say that he or she is essentially a good kid who just needs some time to learn some confidence in their own thoughts. Can we say of the disruptive student that he or she is an essentially good kid who just needs some time to mature or figure out whatever is causing their disruptive behavior. If we can, then we leave the door open for the student to continue to progress in our class. If not, then we will ultimately make the classroom with no real room for that student.
3. What is Going On Inside?
It is also worth remembering that disruptive behaviors don’t exist on their own merits. They come from somewhere, and harshly squashing those behaviors instead of patiently guiding them may end up squashing not just the behavior, but the place from which the behaviors emanate. When you see a student who can’t stop chatting up his friends in class, would you feel differently if you could foresee that that student will end up with a successful career in sales? If you see a student who engages in inappropriate attention seeking, would your approach be different if you found out that the student is suicidal? Some disruptive behaviors are rooted in the things that will ultimately make a student a success. Would you want to communicate to students that those personality traits are unwelcome in the classroom, or would you want to communicate that those personality traits should be employed in the most productive ways possible? Other disruptive behaviors emanate from the pain of a difficult internal environment. Would you want to communicate to a student that that internal environment is unneeded in your classroom, or would you prefer to communicate that you are willing to work with your student to help them figure out how to handle that internal environment? These questions have often held me back when my knee jerk reaction has been to get after disruptive students.
4. Particularly Important for Boys
There is a large body of educational research that demonstrates that boys generally don’t perform as well as girls in school across the United States. This article from the Brookings Institution gives a good overview of some (but definitely all) of that research. Some highlights include the fact that there is not a state in the country where women don’t get significantly more bachelor’s degrees or where girls don’t graduate high school at significantly higher rates than boys. This problem is present in grade school as well. In every state girls significantly outperform boys on 3rd grade english assessments. Boys do better in math, but if you take math and english scores as a conglomerate, again, girls outperform boys in every single state. The causes of this performance gap are likely too complex to be captured in a statement of a single cause, but the way that boys get treated in classrooms is at least an important factor. This study published in the journal Sociology of Education finds that boys tend to exhibit more disruptive behaviors in the classroom early on in education, that this gap in classroom behavior can predict the education achievement gap that these boys will have later in life, and that even if girls exhibit similar disruptive behaviors, they will not suffer as much for it academically as boys.
I think a reasonable takeaway from this research is that either because of biology, social conditioning, or some combination of both, boys tend to exhibit more classroom behaviors that teachers would deem “disruptive”. As a result, boys are often seen as classroom distractions, class clowns, nuisance students, etc. more than girls, even if girls are sometimes exhibiting similar behaviors. In other words, teachers often don’t appreciate the fact that they have to teach boys. The result is that boys get disciplined more, teachers expect less of them, they get poorer grades, and they ultimately have poorer outcomes in education. Neither boys nor girls deserve to receive a lower quality education because of their gender. This means that boys deserve patience and encouragement regarding their behaviors, not to be condemned because they don’t always make a teacher’s life easy.
Another student that I had some years ago would always say she was so grateful every time I said that class was over. “Thank goodness it’s finally done!” she would say. So many times I wanted to snap back, “Ok, I get it. You don’t like my class. You can stop saying that.” Instead I bit my tongue and told her that I hoped she had a great week. If I couldn’t handle that, I would say nothing. Later she told me how much she liked my class, but was afraid to admit it to herself and others. You can imagine how relieved I was that I hadn’t squashed her as she was trying to figure that out.
As a teacher for many years I have had myriad opportunities to squash a student or exhibit patience. Sometimes I’ve chosen to squash them. I’ve always regretted it. Others I’ve tried for patience. I’ve always been grateful when I chose that route. Every teacher will face similar circumstances. It is worth remembering that all students need patience as they learn to modulate their behavior. More than that, the things they bring to the table as a student need to be appreciated by their teachers. Should disruptive behaviors be celebrated? Not necessarily. But should the impulses or needs that produce disruptive behavior be appreciated? Definitely yes.